Sightseeing … By Ourselves

Wednesday, 24 June 2015
The beds at the Portmarnock, I’m sorry to report, were pretty hard too. A little less hard than the Doubletree—and at least I’d learned how to deal with it (pillows under my knees, which is what my massage therapist does too). But we loved the room, and never got tired of the view from the tiny balcony.

The breakfast is nice, too, and the dining room overlooks the courtyard garden, which is a lovely thing to wake up to.

Courtyard garden from the breakfast room at the Portmarnock Hotel and Golf Links, June 2015.

Courtyard garden from our table in the breakfast room at the Portmarnock Hotel and Golf Links, June 2015.

We’d scheduled a meeting with our party planner for late morning, so we decided to drive up to Lusk to see where the wedding would be on Friday. It’s always good to know the parking situation and how long it will take to get there, particularly because Gerry would be filming the event.

Our little Volkswagen Polo. I really enjoyed driving this car.

Our little Volkswagen Polo. I really enjoyed driving this car.

As it turns out, it takes about thirty minutes to get to Lusk from here. On the way up and back, I did some serious thinking about things I’ve learned about driving here in Ireland—tips that I can pass on to my American friends who will be coming. (I’ll put it in a separate post.) One thing we discovered: a dead spot where we lose our GPS for about three or four minutes. Eeek—you can cover a lot of ground in that amount of time.

When you start a journey from Portmarnock, you will spend some time driving the Strand Road.

A view of Lambay Island, June 2015.

A view of Lambay Island, June 2015.

Lambay sits three miles off shore and supports one of the largest seabird colonies in Ireland, as well as other wildlife. (In fact, there is a wallaby population!) The island was purchased in 1904 by Cecil Baring, of the banking industry Barings, and is still owned by the Baring family trust. Though it is privately held, you can tour the island with Skerries Sea Tours.

Another view of Strand Road and the sea. Someone lives in that old bit of a castle wall there on the right.

Another view of Strand Road and the sea. Someone lives in that old bit of a castle wall there on the right.

Came back to the hotel to meet with the party-planner—we finalized the meals, saw the room where the party will be, discussed all the details, got our marching orders (things we still had to decide upon). One thing that came out of the meeting: on our invitations we’d scheduled the pre-dinner cocktail party in the Jameson Bar for 5pm, but we are moving it forward to 4:30pm. Reminders have been emailed.

I’d scheduled a treatment in the spa from Dublin, so after our meeting I made my way downstairs to the Oceana Spa for my “foot massage.” I was desperate for some relief from the swelling and pain—and it did help. In all honesty it was more about the goop and the relaxation—in the thirty-minute treatment, only about ten of them were hands-on—but I was impressed by the quality of the massage (and you know I’m picky).

So I returned to the room with a new spring in my step and hope in my heart. 🙂 Poor Gerry had been trying to nap (he’s not a great sleeper, suffering from insomnia quite a bit), but it still wasn’t happening, so we went out for another drive (and found that dead spot again, coming and going).

We decided to find our way to the Monasterboice monastic site—I wanted Gerry to see it. My friend Margaret Lambert and I visited this place in September 2012 and were charmed by it. We’d gone from Brú na Bóinne to Mellifont Abbey to Monasterboice that day—all were part of the same monastic settlement at one time, which we’d heard on the tour at Brú na Bóinne, and thus decided to see, spur-of-the-momentish. Margaret and I arrived at Monasterboice in the very late afternoon, almost dusk, after being very lost; it’s out in the country on a single-lane road.

See that fragment of a tower? That’s Monasterboice in the distance. I recognized it immediately.

See that fragment of a tower? That’s Monasterboice in the distance. I recognized it immediately.

That day in 2012, Margaret and I had the place to ourselves, and we just meandered and talked quietly. It was, I don’t mind saying, magic, and you all know how I am about finding the magic. (Or, I should say, letting it find you.) Today, Gerry Hampson and I did not have the place to ourselves—it’s the tourist season in Ireland, and boy, can you tell—but we strolled around and invoked the name of our dear friend Margaret, who died earlier this year. It was not the first time her name has been mentioned on this trip.

Aha—here’s that round tower! Monasterboice, June 2015.

Aha—here’s that round tower! Monasterboice, June 2015.

In the foreground, much newer gravesites, but you can see remains of the church, the tower, and at the rear, one of the historic crosses.

In the foreground, much newer gravesites, but you can see remains of the church, the tower, and at the rear, one of the historic crosses.

Founded in the late fifth century by St. Buite, Monasterboice (Mainistir Bhuithe—the monastery of Buite) was an early Christian settlement before it was co-opted by the Cistercians.

All that’s left there now is the round tower, a bit of two churches, and the cemetery (the wall that surrounds it is much later—1870s), which has three fifth-century Celtic-era crosses in it. This article has a lot of information and photos of the historic crosses (this has even more); we were not able to get close once that stinkin’ tour bus arrived.

The wall that surrounds it is newer than the site of the graves and church.

The wall that surrounds it is newer than the site of the graves and church.

When you have a fairly finite area, you slow down and start looking at everything. (And one of these days I will see everything at Monasterboice. The first time Margaret and I were stopped by the setting sun; this time Gerry and I were interrupted by a tour bus.) Still, I was fascinated by the gravestone art.

This is the Sacred Heart, of course, which arose in the Middle Ages as a facet of Catholic mysticism. Wikipedia says: "The Sacred Heart is often depicted in Christian art as a flaming heart shining with divine light, pierced by the lance-wound, encircled by the crown of thorns, surmounted by a cross, and bleeding."

This is the Sacred Heart, of course, which arose in the Middle Ages as a facet of Catholic mysticism. Wikipedia says: “The Sacred Heart is often depicted in Christian art as a flaming heart shining with divine light, pierced by the lance-wound, encircled by the crown of thorns, surmounted by a cross, and bleeding.”

Another, more recent representation of the Sacred Heart, surrounded (clockwise) by a lily, ivy, grape leaf, and I have no idea (a daisy?). I believe this is from the Victorian era; they were big on plant symbolism.

Another, more recent representation of the Sacred Heart, surrounded (clockwise) by a lily, ivy, grape leaf, and I have no idea (a daisy?). I believe this is from the Victorian era; they were big on plant symbolism.

While I was researching for this post, I came across several interesting articles for those who might want to know more. This one is about the old crosses; this one from the Irish Times is lovely.

Here’s a stone that’s more than 200 years old: Christy Kirwan died at Brownstown in 1807. At the top a Christogram—IHS—flanked by angels. I’m not sure if the bird below is meant to be a dove; it looks like a sea bird.

Here’s a humble stone that’s more than 200 years old: Christy Kirwan died at Brownstown in 1807. At the top a Christogram—IHS—flanked by angels. I’m not sure if the bird below is meant to be a dove; it looks like a sea bird.

I have no idea about this one: armor, a shield with three crosses, a disembodied hand holding a dagger? The plant … I have no idea. Is it a stylized lily?

I have no idea about this one: armor, a shield with three crosses, a disembodied hand holding a dagger? The plant … I have no idea. Is it a stylized lily?

The North Cross is the plainest of the ancient crosses here, and, in fact, it is in pieces, all of which are enclosed in an iron fence (probably from Victorian times).

This is about all that survives of the North Cross. This is the eastern face (a medallion); the reverse is a simple crucifixion. In its day it was probably painted.

This is about all that survives of the North Cross. This is the eastern face (a medallion); the reverse is a simple crucifixion. In its day it was probably painted.

This old stone was impossible to read, but you can make out Christ on the cross, two tilted angels … and a skull and crossbones. This is a memento mori—a symbolic reminder that we all will die.

This old stone was impossible to read, but you can make out Christ on the cross, two tilted angels … and a skull and crossbones. This is a memento mori—a symbolic reminder that we all will die.

And then … before we were finished … a huge tour bus arrived and vomited out enough tourists to cover every inch of the place. Ambience was ruined. We weren’t done seeing, yet, but it became impossible to get close enough to see or to take photos without a half-dozen people in them. I have a tendency work my way around the edges of things, looking at the things that most people skip in their haste to get to the One Big Thing they are meant to see—the important thing, the oldest thing, or whatever. Which means I didn’t take photos or even get within thirty feet of the other two very old crosses or the churches.

We departed, disappointed.

 On this road, you would not be able to pass by this bus in another car; you would have to pull over and let it pass. I know this because I have driven on this tiny piece of seemingly unnamed road now in both directions. It’s a one-laner.

On this road, you would not be able to pass by this bus in another car; you would have to pull over and let it pass. I know this because I have driven on this tiny piece of seemingly unnamed road now in both directions. It’s a one-laner.

On our way to Monasterboice we’d seen several roadside vendors selling fruit and produce (mostly strawberries). Since strawberry season was long gone in Tennessee, the temptation proved too much for me—we stopped and I bought a couple pints. We’d get cream—or ice cream!—when we got back to Portnarnock.

After we had the strawberries, we hopped on the M1 to get south a little more quickly, and I was delighted to find myself driving over the Mary McAleese (Boyne Valley) Bridge. There was no place to pull over and we were in the middle of rush-hour traffic, so I’ve borrowed a photo from the engineering firm that designed the bridge.

Isn’t it gorgeous? I borrowed this from the website of ROD Consulting Engineers © 2013.

Isn’t it gorgeous? I borrowed this from the website of ROD Consulting Engineers © 2013.

We arrived back at the hotel at a quarter to five and were distracted … er, reminded that we wanted to try afternoon tea at some point while we were here.

Well, you can hardly miss it, there by the front door in between you and the elevator. :)

Well, you can hardly miss it, there by the front door in between you and the elevator. 🙂

Margaret and I, along with the Hampson ladies and my sister and niece, had had a very fancy high tea at the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin’s city centre back in 2012—and I was thinking of organizing something like it for our celebration this fall. Then Gerry told me that his nieces had taken their Nana (Bridie) out to the Portmarnock for tea. Oh, reeeeally? I’d said.

But they stop serving afternoon tea in the Seaview Lounge at five o’clock, and now it was ten minutes before the magic hour. We lingered in the doorway, and a young server laughed when we wondered if it was too late. “Of course not!” he said, and seated us by the window. Soon we were presented with two pots of tea (green for Mr. Hampson, black for his wife) and a tiered tray of sandwiches and baked goods. When they brought it out I knew we’d never eat it all (we took a full plate back to the room for later) but we made a valiant attempt.

Afternoon tea in the Seaview Lounge.

Afternoon tea in the Seaview Lounge.

We sat there for fifty minutes, counting planes on their final approach for landing and Dublin International Airport (there were about seventeen or so of them—one every five minutes), and making a list of what to do tomorrow. Comparison to afternoon tea at the Shelbourne in downtown Dublin? A little less pomp and circumstance, but just as delicious and significantly less expensive. And the view of the sea was spectacular. We’ve already reserved a group table for Friday afternoon before our party on Saturday. 🙂

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The Happy Green Island

I met Gerry eighteen months ago, and he’s already been to the States twice to visit me. Now, after much discussion and planning, I’ve made my very first trip to Ireland. I was excited beyond excited.

Some of you may recall my England Chronicles, wherein my British friend, Anna, gave me a journal to record the minutiae “because you’ll forget the little details when you get back home.” What a great idea! I carried the same journal back across the ocean with me on this trip, and every evening faithfully recorded the day’s activities.

Wednesday, 10 September 2003
Nashville (BNA) to Chicago (ORD)
Actually, I started writing in my journal in the Chicago airport, during a long layover between Nashville and Dublin, where I found myself at the center of a good six-dozen geriatric Ireland groupies (at least three separate tour groups, judging by the matching T-shirts). American Airlines had moved my flight up from 2pm to a noonish departure, which is how I ended up with the long layover.

So I found myself at the Aer Lingus gate of the international terminal at O’Hare, in the center of a raucous group of retired folk (who knew seniors could be so frisky?), one group of which didn’t know the translation of the Gaelic phrase on their embroidered golf shirts (I asked). Sitting next to me, however, was a young college boy (a junior, from Wisconsin), going to study philosophy at UCD (University College Dublin, one of the two major universities in the city, the other being Trinity College) for a semester. And on the other side, a fella who hummed as he read. Oh, goodness.

We were all headed to the Happy Green Island together … in September. Yes, I was going to be in an airplane, over an ocean, on September 11, and good grief, a new audio/video of Osama bin Laden had just aired, with CNN gravely reporting that new “statements” from OBL tend to surface just before an Al Qaeda attack.

But there are a couple good reasons for choosing September to visit Ireland. September is one of the nicest months, climatically speaking, in Ireland. (Later I was to learn that an inordinate amount of weddings happen in Ireland in September for the same reason.) Also, the actual full-on tourist season (with the higher prices) is April–August (and I did encounter some tourism sites that were closed or operating on reduced hours, tho’ not enough to matter), so there are fewer crowds to contend with too.

With a generally mild climate year ’round—warmed by the Gulf Stream current, the temperatures on the island rarely fall below freezing—Ireland does get about 300 days of rain per year. If you do the math, that’s about five out of every six days … so I bought a rain slicker. During September, average temps are low- to mid-60s, so I took my fleece jacket … but I hardly needed either. Ireland was in the middle of that European heat wave we’d all been hearing about, and except for the last couple days of my seventeen-day stay, it never fell below 72 degrees or so.

Upon boarding around 9pm, my plan was to eat my dinner and sleep; however, my seatmate—a lovely Irishman returning home from a business trip—was a chatter. We talked about our families, our kids (which should surprise no one who knows me), the educational systems in our respective countries, books … you name it. Finally I got out my pillow and managed to shut my eyes (tho’ not actually sleep) for a couple hours. We landed around 3am (local time was 9am, of course). Since I’d gone in to work for a few hours before my flight, I was now working on twenty-two hours without sleep. So far.

Jamie’s First Travel Tip: A messenger bag (as opposed to a purse) is a handy item. You know what I’m talking about: those bags worn slung diagonally across the chest, with the business end of the bag hanging either front or back. It’s always secure, and never slips off your shoulder. I loved-loved-loved my messenger bag.

Thursday, 11 September 2003
Dublin, Co. Dublin
Landing was like something out of a movie—you know, the credits roll and the camera pans across a large metropolis seen from the air. The cloud formations were simply magnificent as we took a wide, sweeping pass from west to east over the lovely Georgian city that is Dublin. (Georgian refers to a style of architecture, characterized, for one thing, by the beautiful half-circle windows, called fanlights, over the front doors of Georgian townhomes, as well as symmetry in overall design, and ornamental cornices based on classic—Greek or Roman—forms. The style takes its name from the English kings who reigned during the period of time from 1700 to the early 1800s during which this architecture was popular: Georges I, II, III, and IV.)

The plane ended up over the Irish Sea, then curved back around over a spit of land called Howth Head (pronounce this with a long O, as in garden hoe), with its marina of boats—dozens of silver capsules packed together like anchovies in a can. Then we turned back to the airport, landing, finally, east to west.

The marina at Howth, 2003.

The marina at Howth, 2003.

Baggage claim and customs were a breeze, and Gerry was there with a grin to escort me to the Avis counter, where we picked up our flashy little grey Ford Focus. Loaded the luggage in the back, and all the while I was taking deep breaths: I was about to pull out in the center of Dublin, driving a standard transmission automobile, sitting on the right side of the car, shifting with my left hand (think about it, y’all!), driving on what amounts—to me, anyway—as the wrong side of the road!

Getting all squared away. I was sloppy traveler, but I’ve gotten better.

Getting all squared away. I was sloppy traveler, but I’ve gotten better.

The good news is I made it … but not without clipping the left curb (spelled kerb in this neck of the woods) and a few trees and bushes. The streets are narrow! Folks drive unbelievably fast (well, it seems that way when you’re a novice driver, doesn’t it)! And—heaven help me—they make liberal use of roundabouts, those handy devices that make it possible to do without traffic lights or stop signs. “Go straight,” Gerry would say as we approached one of these marvels, as if going straight on this circle of pavement with five roads intersecting it at various angles made perfect sense to me. Let me tell you, straight is a relative term when referring to a roundabout!

We went first to my B&B, just around the corner from Gerry’s house.

Jamie’s second travel tip: In Ireland, B&Bs are less expensive than hotels, and they’re absolutely everywhere. Of course, the style and degree of comfort also varies wildly—sometimes it’s just a bedroom in someone’s home, using a communal bathroom (just like home! ha!), while sometimes the owners have really gone out for the B&B trade and added on whole wings. But that’s part of the adventure, I think. We never knew what we were gonna get—except for the warm welcome and the big Irish breakfast (generally served between 8:00 and 10:30am). Those are guaranteed.

What? You don’t know about the Big Irish Breakfast? (This is my term; it’s not official.) Here’s a definition:

In the dining room, a table laden with fresh fruit, such as bananas and apples, and sometimes canned fruit … several kinds of dry cereals, always including corn flakes and always including muesli … fresh yogurt (and not the overly sweet kind we Americans insist on, but real, heavenly, tart yogurt!) … at least two kinds of fresh breads (oh, I could rhapsodize on the lovely bread!) … whole milk in a pitcher, and always juice (at least orange, but often orange and apple and cranberry or tomato). Everything is beautifully displayed and in serving dishes; there’s nothing in a carton. One is expected to help oneself to the cereals (I always started with muesli stirred into a dollop of yogurt), fruit, bread, and juice whilst the owner makes note of one’s appearance in the dining room. “Good morning! Would you like tea or coffee?” (Surprised look when I answer tea in my obviously American accent.) Tea is served in a teapot (similarly, coffee is usually served in a press), and is usually accompanied by toast. Just as you’re feeling full, the owner reappears with the query, “Would you like a cooked breakfast?” and, because you’re starting to really get in to this Big Irish Breakfast thing, you say yes. The cooked portion of your program consists of an egg (I was only once asked how I take my eggs, which, happily, was the way it was inevitably served: over-easy) surrounded by two slices of bacon, two to four links of sausage, a grilled tomato half (sometimes two), and a slice each of both black and white pudding (more about which in a moment). Bacon is a misnomer: in the States our bacon is a strip about one inch by ten inches, and it’s mostly fat; in Ireland it’s about three inches by eight inches, and is all meat. They grind their sausage much finer over there too. As for the pudding, don’t be fooled by that moniker—it’s a sausage, purchased in rounds as bratwurst would be, and sliced off an inch-and-a-half or so at a time. Black pudding is blood sausage, and white pudding is … hmmm, a different kind of sausage. Both yummy.

The Big Irish Breakfast will fortify you for any adventure, and will take you right on through until dinnertime, most days!

My Dublin B&B (Blaithin—pronounced blah-HEEN) was run by the gentleman Kevin (in his sixties, tho’ not looking it, retired for nearly twenty years after twenty-three years in the Irish Navy) and his wife, who went off to work every day (and whom I startled on Saturday morning, showing up in their dining room at 7:50: “Oh, you gave me such a shock, I t’ought I was seein’ a ghost! No one gets up d’is airly on a Saturday!”). They have two daughters, ages fourteen and seventeen, whom I neither heard nor saw except in photos. Kevin sings while he prepares your breakfast, and he comes out to the car and carries your bags in … which he did this day at around 10:30am.*

Then we walked around the corner and down the street to Gerry’s house, where I had a nice chat with his seventy-two-year-old mother, Bridie. Don’t let that number fool you, kids: she is spry, still beautiful with gorgeous gams, full of life and always smiling. While we were getting acquainted, Gerry was in the kitchen, preparing a traditional Irish fry-up (the cooked portion of the previously defined Big Irish Breakfast). This was good, because I was starved, having gotten my second wind sometime during the exciting/scary trip from the airport. (If driving on the left hand side of the road in bumper-to-bumper traffic doesn’t wake one up, nothing will.)

After this feast, the three of us drove along the Coast Road out to Howth so I could practice my driving skills. As you might expect, the homes along the Coast Road—with a fabulous view of Bull Island in the middle of Dublin Bay, as well as Howth Head off in the distance ahead—are pricey and lovely. I had to stop every five minutes and take pictures, so charmed was I by Every. Single. Thing.

Situated thirteen kilometers (about eight miles miles) northeast of Dublin, on a peninsula that forms the northern boundary of Dublin Bay, Howth is a picturesque working fishing village (although, I must be quick to add, celebrities and wealthy others own property out there, it’s that beautiful). Known for its rhododendrons, it is a favorite destination for picnickers and hikers, affording spectacular views of Dublin city and the Wicklow Mountains to the south, and Carrigeen Bay (in which lies the tiny island known as Ireland’s Eye) and, further north, Lambay, an island and noted bird sanctuary. Lambay means Lamb Island, the ay being the Danish word for island, one of the more benign relics the Vikings left behind. Other versions of the word are ey as in Dalkey (Dalk Island) and eye as in Ireland’s Eye (Ireland’s Island). It is incorrect, some locals say, to say Lambay Island: it’s redundant.

I have better photos of Ireland’s Eye but I thought this one was interesting because you can see Lambay in the distance.

I have better photos of Ireland’s Eye but I thought this one was interesting because you can see Lambay in the distance.

The road ends quite literally at Howth Head, a massive cliff. And the village is charming, buildings painted in pastels and jewel tones, a pub or two, the marina and a jetty stretching far out into the ocean.

Looking back at Howth village from the marina.

Looking back at Howth village from the marina.

Walking along the jetty. The wind was fierce.

Walking along the jetty. The wind was fierce.

Just a few hours earlier, I’d been looking at this very marina (and knew what I was looking at, too, I’d spent so many hours poring over the map). We got out and walked atop the jetty in a strong ocean breeze, just strolling, with ice cream cones. (In every town or village, you’ll see a store—a grocery, a pharmacy, a newsstand, a convenience store, perhaps—with a four-foot-tall plastic ice cream cone standing out front, like the old cigar-store Indians; inside, the most delicious ice cream!)

Back at Gerry’s, I (ahem) took a nap while simultaneously watching a DVD of Bend It Like Beckham. Delightful movie. (No, really! It was!) Later we had delicious Indian takeout … and by then I was fading fast, it being nearly 10pm local time. A brisk walk back to my B&B to journal and write postcards did me in. Final score for me: thirty-six hours, no sleep.

*Note: Kevin retired completely not too long ago, and the home is now a private one.

A note about the photos: In 2003 I was using a 1970s-era Canon F-1. Portable digital cameras had been introduced in the mid-1990s but I couldn’t justify the cost when I had a wonderful professional-grade camera that took beautiful photographs on film. However, with film you snap and hope you got a good image; I didn’t know what image I’d captured until long after I’d returned home. Affordable technology to convert film to .jpg was also new then, so the photos you’ve seen and will see are of that in-between era. By the time of my next trip across the Pond, I’d gone digital.